Cold Water Safety
While boating and paddling is typically low-risk, it's important to understand that any type of boating can put you in a situation where you may unexpectedly fall into dangerously cold waters.
If you grew up in the Pacific Northwest, or anywhere else with cold waters, you often learn about hypothermia. What you may not know is that cold-water shock and swim failure are risks that come before hypothermia. If you survive a fall into cold water long enough to get hypothermia — you're lucky. Many drowning victims die within minutes of going overboard due to cold-water shock.
Choose to always wear a life jacket, it can literally save your life. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates 80% of boating fatalities could have been prevented if people wore their life jackets. (bit.ly/USCG_12tips)
Risks of Cold-Water Immersion
Safety experts define "cold water" as anything below 70 degrees. You should treat any water temperature below 60 degrees Fahrenheit with caution. Don't be fooled by warm air temps, because many Washington waterways stay under 60 degrees Fahrenheit most of the year.
Cold water is deadlier than you think. It can kill a person in any of the following four stages:
STage 1: Cold-water Shock
Initial cold shock occurs in the first three to five minutes of accidentally falling overboard. You can experience immediate involuntary gasping, hyperventilation, vertigo and panic — all of which can result in water inhalation and death from drowning. A life jacket will help prevent water inhalation by keeping your head above the water. You may also experience sudden changes in blood pressure, heart rate and heart rhythm, which can result in death.
Stage 2: Swim Failure
Short-term immersion swim failure occurs three to 30 minutes following a fall overboard into cold water. The muscles and nerves in the arms and legs cool quickly. Manual dexterity, handgrip strength and speed of movement can drop by 60% to 80%. Even strong swimmers can lose the strength necessary to pull themselves out of the water or even keep their head above water. A life jacket will help keep you afloat when your body loses it's strength. A life jacket can help keep your core warm and keep you afloat if you loss consciousness.
Stage 3: Hypothermia
Long-term immersion hypothermia may set in after 30 minutes, depending on water temperature, clothing, body type and behavior in the water. Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it produces, cooling vital organs. Cold water robs the body of heat 25 times faster than cold air. Hypothermia can eventually lead to loss of consciousness and death, with or without drowning.
Stage 4: Circum-rescue collapse
Post-immersion circum-rescue collapse occurs during or after rescue. Once rescued, people are still in danger of cardiac arrest. In addition, inhaled water can damage lungs, and heart problems can develop as cold blood from arms and legs is released into the body’s core.
Sources: Dr. Frank Golden and Professor Michael Tipton, cold-water survival experts.
You may think this can't be true because people swim in cold water, do the 'Polar Plunge', or use cold-water therapy in sports medicine and they don't die. Those situations aren't accidental. Cold-water immersion is dangerous when you're in an accident (you're surprised to fall in the water) and you have a physiological response you cannot control due to the shock.
State Parks Boating Program reccomends...
You must consider the possibility of cold-water immersion each time you head out on the water, all year-round, and project yourself.
- Wear a life jacket. Make sure everyone wears an appropriate, properly fitted and U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket, including experienced swimmers. Learn more about life jackets.
- File a float plan with someone trusted. The plan should include details about the trip (when you launch, when you expect to return, etc.), launch area, marina, boat, passengers, towing or trailer vehicle, communication equipment and emergency contacts. Download a free float plan template.
- Know the weather forecast before you set out (warnings, winds, waves, tides, currents, etc.). Wind is a crucial factor as it contributes to capsizing and swamping.
- Dress properly for the air and water temperatures, always wearing layers made of synthetic fabrics and bring an extra set of clothes stored in a dry bag. Avoid cotton clothing.
- Avoid alcohol and marijuana, which decrease alertness. Check your prescriptions, too. Situational awareness requires you’re alert at all times.
- Carry two forms of communications equipment that will work while wet (whistle, VHF radio, person locator beacon, flares or waterproof cellphone) so you can call for help in an emergency.
- Try not to panic if you have fallen into the water. Stay afloat with the help of a life jacket, regain control of breathing and try to self-rescue or keep head above water in view of rescuers. Learn tips for surviving cold-water immersion.
- Increase buoyancy. If you are in the water with others, huddle together with everyone facing inward to help all stay afloat and keep warm.
- Don’t apply heat to extremities such as arms and legs of a rescued victim. This sudden change in temperature could cause cardiac arrest.
Need more information?
- National Center for Cold Water Safety
- Boat U.S. Foundation: Cold-water boating
- National Water Safety Congress: Cold-water facts
- Cold Water Boot Camp: 1-10-1 Principle
- U.S. Army: Tips to survive a fall into cold water